The Indie Dev Who Left Australia To Finish His Game

Image: Ben Johnson

It's no surprise that Sydney is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and consequently a pretty poor place economically speaking as far as game development is concerned. But if you're born and bred in Sydney, you want to finish your game and you've just quit your job, what do you do?

Some people might move back in with their parents, partner or relatives. Others might give up. Ben Johnson, developer of Geneshift, found another option: he travelled overseas for two years.

Chatting to Kotaku over the phone, Johnson explained that Geneshift originally started as a way to show of all of the skills he'd learned from his design computing degree. "I thought a game would be a fun thing to make that covers all the bases," he explained.

Like a lot of other first-time developers, he thought the project would be done fairly quickly. But it took around a year until he could produce a demo, which was called Subvein at the time. "I got a few players from a Rock Paper Shotgun article and they've just, well, some of them have stuck with the game ever since ... they'd say 'this thing here is broken, we need this feature', so I could never really pull myself away from the game."

That was back in 2009. But Johnson kept chipping away, fixing bugs, adding assets and tweaking features in his spare time. 2014 rolled along, and Johnson decided he wanted to travel the world instead of working around the clock.

"I had saved up some money to do some travelling anyway, and I wanted to finish the game," he explained. "So I quit my job, went travelling and then about a month after I went travelling the game got greenlit [on Steam]."

"I did the math with how long I thought it would take to finish the game, and how much money I had left, and if I went to a cheap place, such as Peru where is where I ended up. I had about $20,000 in savings at that time, which was enough to last me about a year in Peru, a bit over a year. But of course it took a lot longer than expected, so I went onto the credit cards as well. But the decision was basically if I get somewhere cheap, I'll be somewhere exotic, I can learn Spanish - which I failed to do - and just try to finish off the game properly once and for all."

Image: Supplied

So after six years of part-time development, Johnson left Australia and began coding around the world. Travelling with some friends for the first few months, he started out in cheap hostels. But spending his days coding in the common areas quickly became demoralising.

"I would sort of stay in a hostel - if it was a cheap country like Thailand I would try and code for a bit there, but I found that really distracting," he recalled. "You don't have your own room, and I felt very anti-social. You're sitting on your laptop eight hours a day in the common area, and everyone else is having fun around you."

So after the first six months, Johnson relocated to Peru. Soured by the hostels, he found a place on Airbnb that would let him stay for a month. The rent: $9 a night. That's an absolute pittance compared to rent anywhere in Sydney, where Johnson had lived, even compared to Australian hostels.

And as it turns out, Peru is a lot more relaxed when it comes to long-term tenants. "I just said to the guy, 'I'd like to stay for a month and extend if I can,' and he was like, 'Yeah sure man.' You know in Australia how you have to go through the retailer and commit to a six month contract and that stuff, but in Peru it was really, really flexible. So I just sort of stayed on and kept on extending it a month at a time, I just did that for 18 months."

A scrawl of Geneshift's level design.

It seems insane until you crunch the numbers on everyday living costs. Australia's metropolitan cities are astronomically expensive relatively speaking, especially when compared to less developed countries. For example, a meal at an inexpensive restaurant in Peru can range from 7 S/. to 13 S/. (S/. being sol, the currency of Peru), which works out to be around $5.34 Australian at the top end. Local beer can be picked up for around 6 S/. ($2.46).

Numbeo has a handy table, and there's a comparison on Expatistan as well.

Image: Expatistan

Neither site should be taken as as gospel when it comes to the exact cost for either city. And while those working full-time might not notice or be bothered by the expenses of daily life, it makes a massive difference when you've just quit your job to finish developing your game full-time.

But as Johnson discovered, moving to another country comes with consequences of its own. While he was able to dive into development as much as he liked - seven days a week, more or less - it also came with a sense of isolation. "I was travelling with my friends for the first few months and it was kind of fun and exciting. But once I settled into Peru I was really, you have no friends, no family ... you really do feel lonely or isolated."

On top of that, he also made a mistake that pretty much every studio in history has made at some point: he underestimated how much time it would take to finish Geneshift. Johnson saved around $20,000 before heading overseas, which he calculated would be enough to sustain himself in Peru for just over a year. But the game took longer than a year to complete, and he ended up staying there for almost two years, which saw him burn through all his savings and rack up another $20,000 in credit card expenses.

And that's not factoring in some of the creature comforts that you forget Australia has, like reliable electricity. "The electricity would cut out once a week, so when those days happened sometimes it was OK; if I was making music I didn't need any internet," Johnson explained.

"But other days ... it was quite stressful, not only because I was going through the money on the credit card and couldn't do anything, but I had no-one else to hang out with. And also whenever the internet cut out I'd freak out a bit. At the time the plan was to launch [Geneshift] in Peru, and I thought, 'If the internet happens to cut out on the very day that I launch on Steam, I'm totally screwed.'"

It helps when there's a nearby doggo for companionship.
But not so much when the street starts flooding.

And for those who might be thinking of going on a whirlwind gamedev adventure of their own, there's something else to consider: visas. Australians in Peru can stay for six months the first time they enter the country, with visas lasting three months every subsequent visit. For Johnson, that meant doing border hops every three months - which meant every now and again, he was faced with the prospect that he might not be allowed back into the country.

"I'd have to constantly do border hops down to Chile every three months, and I used to really dread those because there was a chance that I wouldn't be let back [into the country]," the Geneshift developer said. "And I didn't want to carry my stuff, so I sort of just left all my clothing and stuff at my house in Peru, hopped on a bus, went down to Chile, crossed the border, came back straight away. I got through every time, but it was pretty stressful, especially [not] speaking Spanish and stuff."

Fortunately, Johnson wasn't disconnected from everything. While he didn't come into contact with other budding developers in Peru, he got a lot of support from tutorials on YouTube and the r/gamedev/ subreddit.

And you can't really put a price on the overall experience, even though it comes with many real-world costs. For one, Johnson says he gained a much greater appreciation for friends and family, which is understandable when you're apart for so long. And he gained a greater love for Australia as well. "It's good to be Australian: I saw people in Peru struggling all the time, and I was struggling a bit with a credit card, but for the most part it was pretty good. And I knew if I really needed to, I could hop on a plane and have the security of Australia, whereas a lot of [local] guys were getting by day to day and they had nothing they could fall back on."

It's also a journey that Johnson probably couldn't have taken in later life. He told me that he didn't have a mortgage, children, or other responsibilities that would have tied him to Australia. Any of the aforementioned would have put a kibosh on the entire affair. And even if Johnson had stayed in Australia and tried to continue working on Geneshift, the cost of living would have forced him out of full-time development much sooner.

It's been an incredibly long road for Geneshift, although Johnson doesn't want to stop working on the game. How long that continues will depend on the game's reception, a gamble every indie developer has to face. As Johnson put it to me, making indie games isn't a particularly great way to make money - but it's a great way to get a new perspective on life.

Geneshift is available now on Steam for $US7.99.


Comments

    I know another Aussie indie dev that left Australia to America to continue working on his game and learn game making. He's been working on Lupinball.

      I tried Lupinball a couple of years ago at PAX. That was way more entertaining than I expected and could see it being a lot of fun with a few mates and some drinks.
      I'll have to check how the development of that is going

    Maybe if the Australian government moved on that Senate notion to improve the state of the local game development industry....

      But no one ever made any money off the Internet.

      And video games are just for kids, not a sustainable industry.

      They are too busy inventing terrorist threats to make everyone scared.

        So we had Manchester only a few days ago and it's still an imaginary threat?
        Yes it was another foreign attack, but it also pats tribute to our security services.
        While your at it tell the Bali victims it's all imaginary. Did you loose any one from these imaginary threats? No. But some of us may have and we say, you are a fucking idiot.
        People are dying from imagination?
        Shove your invented threats up your ass.

          I was referring to the LNP and Dutton in particular treatment of asylum seekers but hey, If you want to go off your rocker about it go right ahead :).

          Perhaps you did not read my comment.

          I said inventing Terrorist THREATS, Not Terrorist ATTACKS. Big difference buddy boy.

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